Tag Archives: Travel

Being a Third Culture Kid

For most, the question “where are you from?” requires about as much thought and explanation as answering “what’s your name?” Simple questions with simple answers. Like many, I used to be able to answer these questions without much thought, and it wasn’t until I moved to the US from Indonesia that it became more complicated. Growing up in Indonesia, surrounded by other expatriates, it was simple for me to say where I was from. Back then I would say that I was American and British, a good enough answer since most of my friends had also lived in places outside of their nationality. But when I moved to the US for university, I suddenly realized how little of a claim I had on being American. It was my feeling of being out of place in a culture I was inherently from that lead me to find out about the term Third Culture Kid (TCK). Officially a TCK  “is a person who has spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” In my case, I’m a TCK because my father is from the US, my mother from the UK, but I was born in Singapore, and grew up in Indonesia. Even typing that seems long winded.

Of course, one of the first things people ask when meeting a new person, is where are they from. Since I couldn’t just say I was from “here” or the U.S, my answer always seemed to turn into my life story. At first I didn’t mind sharing, going through how I ended up in Indonesia, why I spoke with an American accent, and so on. But having to go through so many details did get old quickly. Oh, and guess what every professor asks their students to share “name, where you’re from…” yeah, I got pretty good at summing it up in a few sentences. Luckily, it was during this time that I stumbled upon the Facebook group “I’m a Third Culture Kid, don’t try and understand me.” I suddenly had a definition of how I felt, and a whole community of people like me. I even found a thread where TCK’s commented on the best and worst part of being a TCK, and almost everyone said  the worse part was having to explain where they’re from. It may not seem like a big deal, but for someone who doesn’t quite have a certain place to call “home” it was huge to see I wasn’t alone in feeling a bit lost.

Finding this “support group” made me realize how globalized our world is today, and just how many people have had the same upbringing as me. It also made me appreciate that, even though I may not have one place to call home, I’m lucky enough to have multiple homes. I’ve lived here in Austin, Texas for over 5 years now, and even though I miss Indonesia immensely, I’ve learned to adapt and can finally tell people that “Short version, I’m from Austin, longer version, you may want to sit down.”

With time, I also realized that one of the beneficial characteristics of being a TCK is my ability to adapt to where I am. Having grown up in such a drastically different culture, and being able to travel throughout my life, has allowed me to feel comfortable in different environments. These environments might be as different as walking through Bangkok at night, to joining a Zumba class in South Austin, where everyone, including the instructor, spoke Spanish. Instead of feeling out of place, I just danced along, trying to “mover el culo” or “shake your butt” in time with everyone else. Although I’m pretty sure I ended up looking like Jim Carrey in this picture:

-Written by Brooke Fay Bullard

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I was doing it way before Honda thought it clever!

About a million years ago I was a bartender for a certain chain restaurant on the Ice Rink level of the Galleria in Houston, Texas.  To be fair, I exaggerate a little, given that a million years ago Earth was knee-deep in the Quaternary period of the Cenozoic Era, but let’s not quibble over chronological accuracy.

As a bartender in the Galleria, the shopping mecca of America’s fourth-largest city, I waited on, and otherwise served, all types—bartenders from the competing chain restaurant on the opposite side of the ice, cantankerous cosmetics counter ladies from the anchor stores, Kid Rock, foreign visitors from all over.

My ability to speak French, always at the ready like the Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly , made for a great way to connect to traveling Francophones (also a great name for a band).   At various times I met the Belgian owner of a Belgian restaurant in town, French families in Houston because their work in the petroleum industry or at Air Liquide forced them there, even random Americans who had, like me, studied abroad in France.

My most favorite encounters, though, were the équipages from airlines like SAS, Air France, or even Swiss Air.  Sometimes they would come in for lunch, having just settled in the hotel after their arrival at IAH; other times they would come in at night, a last soirée before heading out the next afternoon.  Especially when it was the former, you could tell simply by the uniforms who they were and what they did.  As to the latter, only a clever mix of eavesdropping and patience would reveal their identities.  And that’s when I’d spring into ACTION!

by Laurent Masson / AF from AF website

by Virginie Valdois from AF site

Yes, like the proverbial caped polyglots we know all too well, I would at unexpected moments  pepper my otherwise witty and engaging bartender banter with some French.  It always caught them by surprise, and always made for an interesting, but bonne, continuation of the meal.  One memory seared into my brain involved a group of four Air France crewmembers, contentedly chatting away as they awaited their food.  Upon its arrival, I began handing it out, delicately, poetically, my every move a testament to the art of serving.  At the dink of each dish hitting the table, the over-sized hamburgers and ginormous servings of grilled chicken were met with gasps and concern.  The crescendo arrived as I served to the last plate-less man an order of the baby back ribs for which the chain had made itself, if not famous, at least recognizable through a catchy song in a big marketing ploy.  The ribs spilled over the side of the plate, a bone-in barbecue waterfall, and the insane amount of food for this one man became more than menu photo and clichéd jingle, it became reality.  “Oh là là, mon Dieu, c’est trop, c’est trop!” he said in French, the others nodding vigorously in agreement.  “Oh good God, it’s too much, it’s too much!”  I smiled, too, asked in English if anyone needed anything, then turned to walk away.  With perfect comic timing, and just the right effect, I turned back and said to the man with the ribs, “Bonne chance!” [Good luck!] With that I scurried away.

The rule for most restaurants is two minutes or two bites, that is, return to the table within two minutes or after two bites have been taken in order to make sure that each guest is happy with the meal.  If there’s a problem, it can be solved before someone finishes two-thirds of her plate.  I made the requisite return, and was met with a cascade of questions in French.  How did I know the language? Where did I learn it? Have I been to France? It was a lovely conversation, and it ended with the rib-eater telling me “I must say, your pronunciation of ‘Bonne chance!’ was perfect, just perfect.”  Head swimming in ego expansion, I couldn’t say merci enough.

Nowadays I get to spring my French onto people in other ways.  I can’t wait for my niece and sister to advance in their own French studies so that we can carry on conversations that will escape the understanding of those around us as we wait in line for movie tickets.  I look forward, maybe, one day, to a girlfriend or spouse who speaks French, so that out at dinner, we can talk and gossip about the other guests.  Or better yet, discuss a piece of art in a crowded gallery or a big purchase unbeknownst to eavesdroppers and cloying salesmen.

I say this of course, but as Honda has shown, even those secret conversations might not be so secret.  And I have to admit, though I’m really envious of the couple, I’d much rather be the salesman.

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Language Learning is the Swiss Army Knife of Knowledge…

For when you don’t have a Galactic Hitchhiker from whom you may borrow a Babel Fish…

Han Solo understood Chewbacca’s Wookiee language and the speech of Greedo, a Rodian (Thank goodness or Han would’ve only had a bit part in A New Hope!).  Jabba the Hutt understood English (but still didn’t heed Luke’s warning!). And C-3PO, that loveable goldenrod, was fluent in over six million forms of communication!

Image Copyright Stanley Chow

John Malkovich and Johnny Depp know more than English.  Emma Thompson does, too.  Penelope Cruz has made a career in both Spanish- and English-language films.  Gérard Depardieu makes films in France and Hollywood.  Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian, and Milan Kundera, Czech, all wrote in French, their second language.  And Haruki Murakami wrote the first lines of his debut novel in English, then translated them back into his native Japanese, finding his voice along the way.

It’s what separates the Fleming Bond from the Hollywood Bond.  It’s what makes Jason Bourne way cooler than both.  What’s “it,” you say? Why, speaking more than one language. Being a polyglot.

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You know the old joke: What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three? Trilingual. One? American.

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Mandarin is spoken by over 1 billion people.

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According to CBS news, Barack Obama, at a town hall meeting in 2008, said, despite having spent part of his childhood overseas, “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”  Days prior he was reported saying, “It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?”   When Mr. Obama championed the idea of Americans learning another language, his opponents jumped to criticize, deride and worse.  His response?  “You know, this is an example of some of the problems we get into when somebody attacks you for saying the truth, which is we should want children with more knowledge.”

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Skittles.

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G. Tucker Childs, in his 2003 An Introduction to African Languages, declares that there are more than 2100 languages spoken on the continent.

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Whenever I’ve told someone that I speak French, I’ve never been met with, “Holy Cow! Are you kidding!?  Why on earth would you want to speak another language?”  Very often there is the refrain of “Oh man, that is so cool!  I wish I spoke another language.”  Sometimes a rousing chorus of “Wow, I studied [insert language here] in high school but I don’t remember anything except [insert “hello” or “please” or random curse word from previous language].”  There is the occasional stunned silence, usually for people who aren’t sure how to respond, but they often follow up with a question about how I learned it, or where or why.  And then there are those who, despite having no background in learning another language, still try to relate:  “Wow, that’s great.  I have an uncle who had a step-daughter from his second, no third, marriage, who took French in junior high.  She really liked it.”

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Did you know that Spanish is the de jure or de facto language in some 23 countries around the world, on four continents? 

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There are a million reasons (I know because I’ve counted—#1, to communicate) to learn another language.  Gaining cultural competence and awareness, and improving one’s ability to think and reason notwithstanding, learning another language allows us to better know our mother tongue (Oh, how many students I’ve had who didn’t understand English grammar until we studied French grammar.).  It leaves us with the ability to travel far-off with the magical power to experience a more authentic Spain or France, a more personal Senegal or Columbia.  It bestows upon us even more ways to express ourselves and, better yet, know and understand ourselves.  For music fans, it is your gateway to an exponential number of new favorite bands that you won’t ever hear on the radio, so no  more listening to the same misses over and over and over.  For movie buffs, your DVD collection will grow, your bank account shrink, and Friday Film Nights will never, ever be the same.

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French is the official language (or one of several) of 30+ countries around the world, used unofficially in even more, spoken on five continents, and figures among the official languages of dozens of international organizations.

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Living in Austin, I find myself in the car quite often.  By which I really mean, all the time.  When I’m not listening to KUT, the local NPR affiliate, I have CDs constantly playing music.  You may not think this terribly unusual, save one detail.  Almost without fail, those discs are playing French music.  Or African Music.  Mostly likely hip hop.  In my mind, the soundtrack of Austin isn’t Sara Hickman, Alejandro Escovedo or Brownout (though I listen to them!), but IAM, Saïan Supa Crew, Magic System and Sexion d’Assaut.  And, full disclosure, listening to what surely seems out of place to everyone but me, I always do two things.  One: At stoplights, when the weather’s nice, I open the sunroof and the windows and turn up the music.  When people stare, I know I’m cool, and I secretly wait for them to ask me what I’m playing. Two: Every time I hear a Sonic ID on KUT, I automatically imagine it’s me on the radio, talking about how my soundtrack to Austin goes back and forth between Morning Edition, All Things Considered and French Hip Hop.  Other drivers will listen to this same Sonic ID and think, “That guy must be so cool.”  The ID ends with me singing along to something fun, like Magic System.

My therapists say my delusions completely lack grandeur.

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Learning languages is a Swiss Army Knife for knowledge.  It makes you smarter; it makes you cooler.  It opens the world to you in ways you haven’t even imagined.  It bridges cultures and continents; it links one human to another.  And sometimes, if you’re really lucky, that link turns romantic, then you woo someone in their language, and they you, in yours.  That’s probably worth the price of admission right there.

An Attempt at Internet Dating

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I’ve got Japanese and Arabic on my list. What language do you want to start learning today?

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Another Midnight in Paris, but not Woody Allen’s Paris

Paris. Winter. The numbers shining from my cell phone warn me that midnight is fast approaching. It was only days before that I’d returned to the city I’d previously called home, and which has felt like it for far longer. I’d just left a rendez-vous with a  dear friend, a night cap after attending a poetry reading together. Quitting her, the wine and the company inspired me to do something a little more cozy with my other dear friend, thus the solitary walk in the almost-quiet streets. “Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / Pas à pas je me dis, c’est pas vrai.” [“I had to take to the streets / Step by step I tell myself, it’s not true”]

Heading east, more or less, the Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle turns into Boulevard St Denis turns into Boulevard St Martin as I stroll upstream, toward the Place de la République.  I long ago gave up learning all the names of the streets I wandered here, still wander, instead memorizing their beginnings and endings. This particular stretch of by-many-another-name boulevard starts in République and ends somewhere just beyond the Opéra Garnier, aptly adopting the appellation of the man who Haussmanisized all of these Grands Boulevards.”Si Paris va bien, Maître Gims pète la forme!”[“If Paris is doing well, Maître Gims is in great shape”]

It happens terribly often that these wanderings, in the dead of night or full life of day, present to me those intimate, those magical moments that keep me connected to this city.  No matter how long between visits, or how long each stay, something happens to remind me not just that I’m fully there, here,  but that I’m never absent from Paris.

Now where was I? Ah yes, Paris. Winter. Midnight. Boulevard St Martin depositing me in the Place de la République, eyes alert for the closest entrance to the métro, the subway, so that I might make it back to the apartment in some reasonable amount of time.  To my right, and about a block away, I spot said entrance, a few bodies entering and leaving, apace with my own rate of travel.  This wasn’t the hurry-and-get-there clip of the morning rush hour, or the I-can’t-get-home-soon-enough trot; those I see are climbing and descending the steps as if weighed down by second jobs, or second bottles of Chinon, or simply slowed by the extra seconds between arriving trains. The casual arrival on the quay complements the less frenetic rush to board.

As my body turns right, out of the corner of my left eye, something bright catches my attention, day-like and massive.  Stopping in my tracks, I turn to figure out what’s going on.  Some distance away, in the opposite direction of the yawning of the métro, I see a semi truck and flatbed trailer, parked next to the sidewalk, with what are clearly a film crew and a massive set of lights focused on the trailer bed.  My initial assumption is of course that yet another movie is taking place in Paris, and at this late hour they might be escaping the throngs of lookers-on, or perhaps simply looking to avoid the traffic common just a few hours earlier in the evening.  “J’vois pas Paname du même coté que les touristes … / Derrière le papier-peint pas d’assurer tout risque (Paname!) ” [“I don’t see Paris from the same view as the tourists…/Behind the wallpaper no insuring against all risks”]

I’m not in any rush so, cat-like, my curiosity shifts my weight and then movement towards the action.  A few steps closer, the truck is now some thirty or forty meters away. Perhaps I should say some thirty or forty yards away, it’s just that sometimes it’s not only language and demeanor that totters back and forth between arrivals, but perspective, too. Fully facing the truck now, I can start to make out more clearly what’s going on.  It’s not a crew working on a film, but rather a music group working on a video.  They’re rehearsing on the flatbed, moving (dancing?) in unison to a piece of music I can’t hear at all. From here I can see that they’re all wearing the same outfits, black and gray letter jackets and jeans, some with baseball caps, some without.  My first thought, my first instinct is that this is a hip hop or R&B group working on some new clip destined for MTV Base or M6 musique.  As I take a few more steps, it becomes easier to distinguish between the members–height, weight, stature, even faces become just a little more defined. The figures taking on their own forms, I start to recognize what I think are the people behind the voices of “L’école des points vitaux” and “Désolé.”  Is it?  Could it be? I think to myself, but that isn’t quite accurate because I hear the words come out under my breath.

“Is it? Could it be? Mais c’est pas possible!” [“It’s not possible!”] There’s no way that on this, of all nights, I would wander into Place de la République when they are filming a video.  Would I get that lucky?  I’ll know if I see him.  Look for the glasses, look for the aviators.  A few more steps, a better viewing angle and the director comes into view, previously hidden by the corner of the rig.  His hands are up, giving some directions to the guys, who nod in agreement or understanding.  A few more steps, and some movement based on the directions, then a few more and from behind one of the lights comes into view a head, hat cocked to the side, and the reflection of the set lights in a pair of sunglasses.

“C’est pas possible! Ce n’est pas possible!” I talk to myself a lot; like a sports announcer I often have running commentary in my head and in my mouth.  In France, it’s not unusual for me to do all of this code switching.  “It’s them, it’s really them!” Sexion d’Assaut tourne un clip right here in Place de la République, and I’m about twenty meters away.  I feel my pace quicken, so I force myself to slow down, lest I look too eager to become an on-looker, wide-eyed groupie, psycho fan.

So here I am, self-induced almost-crawl, not so slow as to appear creepy or stage five stalkerish, but certainly not the racing pace that would have given my pulse a good run for its money. I’m still eyes-wide, but if I can just keep a low profile, perhaps the others milling about won’t take too much note of my presence.  It is all I can do not to run up to the trailer.  Are they going to take a break?  Pourrai-je parler avec eux? If they  stop, I’m going to talk to them.  If they stop, I’m gonna talk to ’em.  Another five minutes of rehearsal; they seem to have the steps down, everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to.  Or at least I think they do, hell I don’t know what the director told them or whether they all did their thing.  At this point, I’m all If they take a break I’m gonna talk to ’em. If they take a break I’m gonna talk to ’em.  I feel the words generating in my throat.  “Qui a eu l’idée pour ‘Désolé’?  Qui sont vos poètes préférés? Je vous admire depuis la sortie de “Antitecktonik’!!!  Je suis américain, stupide mais je kiffe trop la musique!!” [“Who had the idea for ‘Désolé’? Who are your favorite poets? I’ve admired you guys since the release of ‘Antitecktonik’!! I’m just a stupid American but your music rocks!!!”] Who the hell is this white guy yelling at us?  In French? We’re trying to make a video here.

Thank goodness such an outburst never leaves the voice box; thank goodness the knees didn’t automatically kneel themselves near the tires.  I’m stuck right here, a good twenty feet (yes, twenty feet) away, and as the others loitering about seem to be over the chance sighting, I keep my focus on the trailer, on Sexion d’Assaut.

Another three or four minutes (oh how they stretched into what clearly felt like the end of an LP, spinning the scratchy silence, too lazy to lift the needle) and then a shout:  “Alright, we ready?” A rousing “Yeah!,” then someone climbs into the cab, puffs of black smoke indicating the diesel engine is up and running.  They take off, easing into traffic in a manner only possible after midnight.  They turn right onto Boulevard St Martin, heading towards Opéra.  Automatically, my legs turn, too.  Yep, we’re following the rig.  A determined mosey, surely the rig will get caught at a light.

Again, my body’s trying to do one thing–keep it cool, keep it cool, we’re just out to flâner un petit peu, take a little stroll tranquillement–but my mind is racing–what are we going to say to them? how do we start? when they stop do we run up, or just stroll by? what if we get drinks? am I going to get drunk with Maître Gims and Black M?

And so I keep following as the truck passes one green light then another green light (Who gets this lucky with intersections?).  Mutter-breath, “If they stop I’m gonna talk to ’em, if they stop I’m gonna talk to ’em.” Another green light. Their height decreases by half.  Another.  Half again. Another. My legs, no longer suitable for running anyway, cultivate the saunter in a perfect field test; I am not speeding up, but neither am I slowing down.  I am Baudelaire’s flâneur incarnate, his midwinter night’s hip hop flâneur chasing the metal carriage that rumbles past those dandy, agèd arcades.  Another. Brake lights become twinkles.  Is that a street light or the lights for the camera? Another. They must have a code or a cop for les feux.

Ten blocks. Or twenty. Or  four-twenties. My mind out of breath from its relentless racing; my legs, still in amble mode, ready for the next twenty, and the next.  But I’ll never catch up.  This is Paris, at night, in the winter.  Behind me, the Place de la République beckons, so I turn, then return.  This time, on the north side of Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle turning into Boulevard St Denis turning into Boulevard St Martin. Appropriately enough, even the switch to the opposite side of the street from earlier gives everything a completely new perspective.  “Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / pas à pas je me dis c’est pas vrai…”

Totally worth every moment I’ve ever spent learning French.

“Et j’ai dû côtoyer le pavé / pas à pas je me dis c’est pas vrai…”

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